The Chemehuevi Indians are an indigenous people of the Great Basin culture area. They are the southernmost branch of Southern Paiute.
“Chemehuevi” has multiple interpretations. It is considered to either be a Mojave term meaning “those who play with fish;” or a Quechan word meaning “nose-in-the-air-like-a-roadrunner.” The Chemehuevi call themselves Nüwüwü (“The People”, singular Nüwü) or Tantáwats, meaning “Southern Men.”
The Chemehuevi were originally a desert tribe among the Southern Paiute group. Post-contact, they lived primarily in the eastern Mojave Desert and later Cottonwood Island in Nevada and the Chemehuevi Valley along the Colorado River in California.
Since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Chemehuevi people have lived in the Chemehuevi Valley, California (part of the Colorado River Valley east of Joshua Tree National Monument), and southwestern California. Their traditional territory was located in southwestern Utah, the Mojave Desert, and the Chemehuevi Valley, near the present Lake Havasu.
They were a nomadic people living in small groups given the sparse resources available in the desert environment. Their traditional territory spanned the High Desert from the Colorado River on the east to the Tehachapi Mountains on the west and from the Las Vegas area and Death Valley on the north to the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains in the south.
The most comprehensive collection of Chemehuevi history, culture and mythology was gathered by Carobeth Laird (1895–1983) and her second husband, George Laird, one of the last Chemehuevi to have been raised in the traditional culture.
Carobeth Laird, a linguist and ethnographer, wrote a comprehensive account of the culture and language as George Laird remembered it, and published their collaborative efforts in her 1976 The Chemehuevis, the first – and, to date, only – ethnography of the Chemehuevi traditional culture.
The Chemehuevi had to work hard to find food in their desert home. They hunted small game like rabbits, wood rats, mice, gophers, squirrels, chipmunks, lizards and tortoises. Sometimes hunters joined together in a rabbit drive.
The Chemehuevi did not like to eat fish, but they caught birds, gathered bird eggs, and ate caterpillars and locusts.
Large game such as deer, antelope, and mountain sheep were scarce. Some men owned the rights to hunt these larger animals in certain areas, and passed these rights on to their sons.
The hunting areas were described in songs. The owner of the rights to the hunting area must know the proper song to show that it was indeed his area.
The agave plant was a basic food which grew all year round. The leaves were cut off and part of the stalk was baked. The people also gathered seeds and a type of cactus called mescal.
The Chemehuevi were one of the few early Californians to do a little farming, having learned from their neighbors to the east how to grow beans, corn, wheat, and melons. Only in a few spots was there enough water to grow these crops.
Chemehuevi Houses and Settlements
A settlement might consist of just one or two families, or as many as 10 or 20 families who searched for food together, traveling from place to place but coming back often to one fixed area.
Most groups chose a leader who was expected to be wealthy as well as wise in advising the group as to when and where to hunt for food. The position of leader was usually inherited by the eldest son.
Protection from the sun and wind was the main need in the desert. Houses were often brush-roofed shelters made by placing poles in the ground in a rectangular pattern, joining the upright poles with cross poles at the top, and covering the roof frame with branches.
A brush side-wall on the side from which the wind usually came gave more protection. In colder weather, the people might build their houses with three side walls. Covering the brush with earth made the house warmer inside.
Caves were used by the Chemehuevi when they were available. A cave made a snug home when the weather was cold. Little caves or crevices in the rocks were used for storing food and supplies.
Chemehuevi women probably wore an apron-like skirt with one piece in the front and one in the back. The skirt was made of plant fibers attached to a waist band.
The men wore a piece of animal skin wrapped around their hips or, in warm weather, went without clothes.
For colder weather, a cape made of animal skins was worn over the shoulders by both men and women. The skins for clothing came from antelope or mountain sheep, or from a number of rabbit skins cut in strips and sewn together with cord.
Both men and women often wore caps on their heads. The women’s cap was woven of plant fibers, like a basket, and served to protect the head when a large load was carried in a basket supported by a head strap.
Caps worn by the men were made of animal skin. A leader or a skillful hunter might have a few quail feathers on his cap, to show his importance.
Though they went barefoot much of the time, there were occasions when sandals or moccasins were worn.
Bark or plant fibers (particularly from the yucca plant) was used to make sandals.
Some Chemehuevi made moccasins from pieces of deerhide, or from the whole skin of a squirrel or other small animal.
Both as decoration and to protect their skin from the sun and wind, men and women painted their faces and bodies with red, white, black, yellow, and blue pigments.
It appears that the Chemehuevi sometimes made pots from the clay in their area. However, baskets were more common. Their coiled baskets were made from slender willow branches, with other fibers sewn through the coils.
They also made baskets by the twining method, used especially for caps, trays, and carrying baskets. Instead of working in designs with colored fibers, as other Californians did, the Chemehuevi often painted designs on the basket after it was completed. It seems that the Chemehuevi did not use baskets for cooking, as many early Californian tribes did.
Besides using pottery water jars and cooking pots, the Chemehuevi made a large pottery container which they used to carry children across the Colorado River. Adults sometimes used log rafts to cross the river, or they swam across, pushing the pot with the children in front of them.
The agave plant was the source of fibers which the Chemehuevi made into rope and cord. It was a man’s job to make rope, and a woman’s job to make the lighter cord or twine.
The men used the cord to make nets, which were used in hunting small game and for carrying loads. Chemehuevi nets were made double; they could be opened up to carry a larger load.
The Chemehuevi traveled a lot and had contacts with many other groups. They were especially influenced by the Mohave people, with whom they traded ideas as well as goods.
Since they moved often in the search for food, the people did not accumulate lots of belongings as wealth. One valuable possession was a spring of water, which was considered to be private property.
Wealthy men would be those who owned a spring or the hunting rights for large game in a certain area.
The Chemehuevi had four groups of songs, called the Salt, Deer, Mountain Sheep, and Shamans’ or Doctoring song cycles, which were used in their ceremonies.
Each group of songs was connected with a story which was told during the ceremony. The Deer and Mountain Sheep songs were sung both for fun, and to insure success in the hunt.
One important ceremony was the Cry, held several months after the death of a relative. Many neighbors were invited to a big feast where presents were given. Objects belonging to the deceased were burned in a ceremonial fire.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the Chemehuevi and the Las Vegas band of Southern Paiutes may have exterminated the Desert Mojave.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Chemehuevi took over their territory as well as that of the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) Indians, who had been driven away by the Mojave Indians and had gone to live on the Gila River.
The Mojave either actively or passively accepted the Chemehuevi.
On the Colorado River, the Chemehuevi developed a crop-based economy and at the same time began to think of themselves as a distinct political entity.
They also became strongly influenced in many ways by the Mojave, notably in their interest in warfare and their religious beliefs. Some Chemehuevis raided miners in northern Arizona from the 1850s through the 1870s.
In 1865 the Chemehuevi and Mojave fought each other. The Chemehuevi lost and retreated back into the desert. Two years later, however, many returned to the California side of the Colorado River, where they resumed their lives on the Colorado River Reservation, established two years earlier.
Many Chemehuevi also remained in and around the Chemehuevi Valley, combining wage labor and traditional subsistence.
By the turn of the century, most Chemehuevis were settled on the Colorado River Reservation and among the Serrano and Cahuilla in southern California.
In 1885, after a particularly severe drought, a group moved north to farm the Chemehuevi Valley. When a reservation was established there, in 1907, the tribal split became official.
The creation of Hoover Dam in 1935 and Parker Dam in 1939 spelled disaster for the Chemehuevi. The Hoover stopped the seasonal Colorado River floods, which the Chemehuevi people had depended upon to nourish their crops.
The Parker Dam created Lake Havasu, placing most of the Chemehuevi Valley under water. At that point, most Indians in the Chemehuevi Valley moved south again to join their people at the Colorado River Reservation. A government relocation camp operated on the reservation from 1942 to 1945.
By the end of World War II, 148 Navajo and Hopi families had also colonized the reservation. They, along with the Chemehuevi and Mojave, became known as the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT).
As a result of a 1951 lawsuit, the Chemehuevi were awarded $900,000 by the United States for land taken to create Lake Havasu.
The tribe was not formally constituted until they adopted a constitution in 1971. At about that time, some Chemehuevis began a slow return to the Chemehuevi Valley, where they remain today, operating a casino resort on their tribal lands.
- Howaits (Hokwaits, lived in the Ivanpah Mountains, called Ivanpah Mountain Group)
- Kauyaichits (lived in the area of Ash Meadows, called Ash Meadows Group)
- Mokwats (lived in the Kingston Mountains, called Kingston Mountain Group)
- Moviats (Movweats, lived on Cottonwood Island, called Cottonwood Island Group)
- Palonies ((in Spanish) “the bald-headed”, traveled to the area north of Los Angeles)
- Shivawach (one group of them lived at Twentynine Palms, the second one in Chemehuevi Valley)
- Tümplsagavatsits (Timpashauwagotsits, lived in the Providence Mountains, therefore called Providence Mountain Group)
- Yagats (lived in the Amargosa Valley and along the Amargosa River, called Amargosa River Group)
Today, Chemehuevi people are enrolled in the following federally recognized tribes:
- Colorado River Indian Tribes
- Chemehuevi Indian Tribe of the Chemehuevi Reservation
- Morongo Band of Mission Indians
- Cabazon Band of Mission Indians
- Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians
- Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians
- Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians of California
Some Chemehuevi are also part of the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians, which members are mostly Sovovatum or Soboba band members of Cahuilla and Luiseño people.